Dedicated followers of passion

Euro '96: Irish players and punters join in a fanfare for an uncommon manager as the epic battle of Anfield beckons; Andrew Baker travels to Kilburn to meet some of the Republic's firm fans
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The Independent Online
THE SURVEY of popular sentiment among the Irish community got off to a shaky start in Biddy Mulligan's bar on Kilburn High Road, in north-west London. "What do you think of Big Jack, then?" was the question. "Beeg who?" was the response. Despite the pints of stout and the road signs saying "Dublin 143", the pub was populated almost entirely by Spanish au pairs.

Responses were more enthusiastic a little further down the road in McGovern's, a giant barn of a place where on Wednesday nine televisions will relay the action from Anfield to close on 1,000 Irish fans. "And if they win," Austin McGovern, the owner's son, said, "it'll be haywire here, haywire altogether. I won't get to see the game myself, mind - I'll be flat to the boards."

McGovern's has a fine pedigree in terms of Irish international football: after its latest refurbishment the reopening was performed by Kevin Moran. During the last World Cup the bar became a magnet for Irish fans who wanted to savour the atmosphere of their home country's games but could not afford the air fare to the United States. "You might as well have been in New York if you were in here," McGovern recalled.

The Public Bar - not the ritzier Saloon - is a traditional gathering spot for Irish fans on the Friday before every international, and last week they were loud in their support for their manager, his players and his tactics. "He is a great man," said Tricky Dicky, his trilby slightly askew, "and it is not likely that he is coming to the end of his days. He's only just starting out."

Tom the Duck was unable to name a particular favourite in the team. "They are all good players," he said. "It's just that they haven't been playing like good players for the last few games." In Teg's opinion: "The reason why the British public has always been jealous of Jack Charlton is that he has the ability to recognise good football players."

Patrick, the barman, reckoned that the lads should have wrapped everything up in Liechtenstein. "All the other teams whacked seven or eight past them," he said. "But our lads were too busy looking at the view to play football. They were tourists on the day." Patrick had a racing metaphor for the ageing Irish side. "It's like a horse or a dog, getting a little long in the tooth: Cascarino's 33, McGrath's 35. But Jack's done well to get the best out of them."

Nobody in McGovern's had a harsh word for their national team's manager. But the London-based Irish media were not so kind. "Armchair fans think that we deserve to beat the Dutch," Peter Carbery of the Irish Post, said. "But people who actually go to the matches know that we don't deserve to win."

Carbery likened Charlton's situation to that of Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest three years ago: hanging on a little too long. "He gave the players a direction, but it was a very strict way of playing, and once they grew out of that the problems began. He should have bowed out after USA '94. A lot of people feel that way."

Not in McGovern's, they don't. As the Guinness ("from Dublin, mind") flowed, the praise heaped on the big man grew ever more lavish. Peter McGovern, the bar's owner, jabbed his finger at a picture on the wall of Jack Lynch, the former Taoiseach, in his hurling days. "At the last election," McGovern remembered, "they all wore badges saying 'Jack for President' - and they weren't talking about Jack Lynch."

Peter McGovern has the intense gaze and firm handshake of a man who knows a thing or two about business, and he approves of Charlton as an operator. "He's a very shrewd man," he said, getting in another round. "He's been buying up pubs in Dublin, so they say." But what about his more immediate plans: what about the match? "Ah, they'd win that all right," Peter said, and then paused to allow his son to join him in a well-worn chorus: "If they had a striker..."

But the others wouldn't hear a word of criticism. Teg even picked up on the footballing advantages of the peace process: "If the teams of the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland get together," he said, "the English had better watch out." And Con was emphatic: "Jack Charlton is one of the greatest men we've ever had in Ireland."

Mick had information on Charlton's retirement plans: he's bought a fishing shack in County Mayo, apparently. But such talk may be premature - if Ireland are defeated, he may take his management skills further afield. "There's plenty of salmon in Holland," Mick said. "Tell Big Jack that."